Marx on Alienation

The fact that Marx devoted a great deal of his energy in his younger days to the theme of alienation is a relatively recent discovery, dating from the publication in English in the 1950’s of certain of his early texts, in particular the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and later of the Grundrisse of 1857. There has followed something of a re-examination of Marx, with a shift in emphasis from his well-established economic works to the philosophical and humanist outlook of his earlier works.

Alienation can be defined as a state in which man fails to realize himself either as an individual or as a species—in which man is not himself. This necessarily involves a definition of what man’s nature consists of and of what man’s life ought to be. For Marx, what distinguishes man from other species is that man has the ability of self-creation. While an animal can never see beyond its immediate physical needs, and is governed entirely by instinct, man has the ability to produce in excess of these needs and to do so consciously, thereby creating his own environment:

    “The animal is immediately one with its vital activity. It is not distinct from it. Man makes his vital activity into an object of his will and consciousness. He has a conscious vital activity . . . It is this and this alone that makes man a species-being.” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

Man’s essence therefore lies in his conscious and creative activity in creating a world of objects:

    “Men themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence . . . In producing their means of subsistence, men indirectly produce their actual material life.” (The German Ideology).

It can be seen, therefore, that Marx’s ideas on the nature of man were in total contrast and opposition to the mechanical materialism whereby man is seen as an object of nature whose behaviour is determined in a one-sided way by sense-impressions received from the environment and is given no active role in creating the society in which he lives. Such a mechanical behaviourist doctrine was expounded by Feuerbach, in common with the ideas of the French Enlightenment. Here the real need was seen to be an Educator who was over and above society and who would change men’s behaviour by creating the right environment to bring about a society based on harmony. Marx attacked this view: man, by consciously acting upon and transforming nature, also transforms himself. There is a two-way relationship between man and his environment, and between his consciousness and his activity. Therefore “circumstances are changed by men and the educator must himself be educated” (Theses on Feuerbach). Man makes his own history and makes himself in the process.

It is man’s ability to labour, to objectify his creative capacities in the world of things, which makes him human. Under the capitalist system, the labour of the worker becomes a means to an end instead of an end in itself, an activity carried on not for the satisfaction and fulfilment it gives, but as a means of maintaining physical existence. Marx’s critique of capitalism is not simply that the wage-worker is economically exploited, but that he ceases to be a human being.

Alienation, however, was a concept which had previously been used with regard to religion by Feuerbach, and Marx recognized this. For Feuerbach (in The Essence of Christianity), the powers and qualities which religion attributes to God are in fact those of man himself, objectified, and contemplated and revered as a distinct being. Man alienates himself from himself by making God the creator of the world, thereby destroying his own self-fulfilment as a species-being. In other words, man creates God in his own image. Feuerbach, however, only conceived of alienation in the religious sphere, failing to see that religious self-alienation is only part of a much wider social alienation.

    “This state, this society produces religion’s inverted attitude to the world because they are an inverted world themselves . . . Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” (Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction)

For Marx, then, man’s alienation was a result of the totality of social relations which exist under the capitalist mode of production. This alienation takes on four forms:

    The alienation of the worker from the product of labour.

    The alienation of the worker from the act of production.

    The alienation of man from his species-being.

    The alienation of man from man.

With regard to the first of these, the object which labour produces confronts it as an alien and hostile being exercising power over the worker who created it. Furthermore, just as in religion the more power man attributes to God the less he retains of himself, so in work the more the worker externalizes himself, the more powerful becomes the alien, hostile world he creates opposite himself. The greater the product of the worker, the less he is himself:

    “Labour establishes itself objectively, but it establishes this objectivity as its own non-being or as the being of its non-being—of capital.” (Grundrisse)

Capital is accumulated dead labour, the objective manifestation of the fact that man is lost to himself. The very physical existence of the worker is a commodity, just like any other; “he has no existence as a human being, only as a worker” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

Alienation shows itself not only in the result, but also in the process of production. Because labour is external to the worker, he does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself. “The worker only feels at home outside his work and in his work he feels a stranger”. Labour is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy needs external to the self. And the labour of the worker is not his own, but is somebody else’s — the worker therefore belongs to somebody else in his labour.

The result of this is that man feels himself freely active in his animal functions — eating, drinking, procreating — while in his human function — labour — he feels himself to be an animal. It is in the working-over of inorganic nature and the practical creation of an objective world that man confirms himself as a species-being. Man duplicates himself in reality and contemplates the world he has created:

    “Therefore when alienated labour tears from man the object of this production, it also tears from him his species-life, the real objectivity of his species.” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

Man’s productive activity represents his species-life; it is this which distinguishes man from animals. But the wage-worker works out of necessity, not choice; his species-life is turned into a means of maintaining his physical existence. Capitalism “alienates species-life and individual life and . . . it makes the latter into the aim of the former”.

The alienation of man from himself, man from nature and man from the product of his labour is expressed in the relation between man and man. If the product of labour does not belong to the worker, but stands opposed to him as a hostile power, this can only mean that it belongs to another man. The alien power above man can only be man himself. Therefore “the relationship of the worker to his labour creates the relationship to it of the  capitalist . . . Private property is thus the product, result and necessary consequence of alienated labour” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

The supreme form of alienation under capitalism was for Marx the existence of money. Money is the universal commodity, alongside all other commodities. The mediating activity between man’s products, and human activity, becomes the characteristic of a material thing, money, which is outside and above man.

    “Whereas man himself should be the intermediary between men, man sees his will, his activity and his relation to others as a power which is independent of him and of them.” (Economic Studies from Marx’s Notebooks, 1844-5)

Marx therefore saw Socialism as a society in which men could relate to each other as human beings. Under capitalism they only exist as workers or capitalists — political economy does not recognize any relationship outside this one. Man’s alienation can only be ended with the abolition of private property, exchange and money — but Socialism (or Communism) was for Marx more than simply an economic abstraction, it was the creation of a genuinely human society, the beginning of real, human history. It involves “the complete development of human domination of natural forces, both those of so-called ‘nature’ as well as those of his own nature”, “the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions”, “the development of all human powers as such . . . into an end in itself”, “a situation in which man . . . produces his totality” (Grundrisse).

Socialism, while preserving the gains of previous historical development, is above all a society in which man realizes his full potential as a human being.

B.K. McNeeney

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